Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Rulloff: The Genius Killer

The Learned Murderer

Once ensconced in his cell again, Rulloff continued to be an object of great curiosity.  While considered monstrous, he was also unique for his intellectual abilities, and many scholars wished to engage in a correspondence with him.  It was a foregone conclusion, more or less, that he'd killed his wife and daughter, and many suspected that he'd also killed his sister-in-law and her child.  In addition, there was talk that the dead burglars were among his victim toll, although his only official victim was Merrick, the clerk.  Rulloff's fame grew, day by day, until he reached celebrity status.  Many people were curious about his so-called theory of language. People came to just look at him, thinking him more than just a common murderer, and he played to this by writing, reading, and looking through books as if he couldn't be bothered with anything else.

Special invitation to the hanging
Special invitation to the hanging

Even as the sheriff printed special invitations to the hanging, Rulloff was busy explaining his ideas to correspondents. Thus, certain intellectuals raised the question of whether Rulloff shouldn't rather be studied than hanged.  Some scholars pronounced him a fraud, able to say just the right Latin phrase or refer to some bit of minutia, but put to the test, Rulloff was no more than a clever con man.  In a New York Times commentary from 1871, the author said that Rulloff's letter to the Binghamton Leader was "a most unique mixture of acuteness, erudition, pure nonsense, and pretentious impudence" which ignored the fundamental principles of science.  He was described as either a deliberate charlatan or a hopeless monomaniac.  Yet others who spent time with him found him to be quite well-versed in many areas, as well as highly skilled.  Many sent him books to read or dictionaries to use and more than a few insisted that he was an accomplished scholar of languages.

Rulloff wrote letters to inquiring scholars and with interest followed the debates over whether he should be executed or studied.  He also submitted to several interviews, although he feared how journalists would ultimately portray him.  In one interview, he offered what would become both a signature phrase and a mystery: "...you cannot kill an unquiet spirit."  He swore that people would still sense his presence in the streets and in their rooms.  He would come as a chill in the night to remind people that they had wrongly killed him.

The sheriff continued to remind Rulloff that, with his appeals denied, he was going to die: He ought to make plans for the final disposition of his remains.  But Rulloff dismissed this necessity by telling the sheriff he could do whatever he wanted with the body. (He would later change his mind about that.)

Rulloff  began destroying all that he had written while in the cell, but his manuscript remained safely beyond his reach in a bank vault.  His guards were careful to watch for suicidal behavior, and time passed quickly.  Rulloff mentioned to his attorney that he was a martyr to the cause of science and believed himself a wronged man.  Finally, the day of the execution arrived.

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